Tag Archives: Cotton Library

Cotton’s Memory Palace

One recurrent theme in the literature on Sir Robert Cotton’s library is the idiosyncratic arrangement of his collection, a feature which still persists in various ways 400 years later. Within this theme, the two big questions are probably “why did he do it that way,” and “how did users find things, before the library’s first catalog?”

Scholars propose that other people mostly found things by consulting Cotton. He acquired the documents, arranged and bound them to his liking, and thus had intimate knowledge of the collection. This has seemed adequate explanation to me.

Some while back, though, an erudite reader suggested that Cotton also built a mnemonic device into the library itself. The layout of Cotton’s library, suggests Mr. Mark Kindt, was a real-world memory palace.

You can read about the memory palace technique in many places. But the basic concept of memorizing information by mapping it to physical space is, at least, suggestive in light of what we know about Cotton’s library.

Cotton organized his manuscripts into physical niches, each adorned by the bust of a Roman emperor or other figure from antiquity. This curious sorting eventually joined the first catalog, and all those which have followed up to this day. (The Beowulf manuscript is still “Vitellius A. xv,” from its onetime position as the 15th item on the first shelf under a bust of Emperor Vitellius.)

But what if this wasn’t just a novel convention drawn from a purely decorative foundation?

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Kathryn Kane reviews Cotton’s Library

Every now and then I search the web for any new comment about my books, and by chance, last night I found a new review of Cotton’s Library. Author Kathryn Kane recently posted an extensive comment on Cotton’s Library at her blog Regency Redingote. Just a couple of fragments:

The history of the Cotton Library is not a dull tale of piles of books and the scholars who cared for them. It is laced with bribery and intrigue, larceny and danger. It is also a story of the discovery of hidden treasure, for Sir Robert Cotton bound a number of smaller works in with others. As time passed, many of these works were forgotten, only to be rediscovered when the collection was cataloged. …

…Truth is often stranger than fiction, so, if you love books, libraries, the history of collecting, or the intrigues which are sometimes associated with same, treat yourself to Cotton’s Library: The Many Perils of Preserving History.

There’s even recognition for the maps, charts and other artwork that I’ve posted here for free use. I scarcely know what to say. It’s like all of this has been worthwhile.

So let’s just say thank you, and I’m very pleased that you enjoyed this book.

Robert Cotton & John Dee’s diaries

In Cotton’s Library, I referred to a legend about Sir Robert Cotton buying up a field in which John Dee was reputed to have buried manuscripts of his work, with the intent of prospecting for them. The story seems to have originated in Brief Lives by John Aubrey. I included it as an illustration of Cotton’s eagerness in collecting, though I suggested it was “almost certainly apocryphal” based on the assertions of every other source I consulted.

Then, in October, I came across Jessica Jenkins’ Encyclopedia of the Exquisite. This repeated the same story, and gave The Diaries of John Dee edited by Edward Fenton as a source. Interesting, but I would have to check it out. Which was complicated by the fact that Fenton’s book is not exactly ubiquitous (and I wasn’t going to buy a copy just to re-check one footnote from a book I published a year ago).

However, I was planning to visit two substantial university libraries in December, as part of research for another book currently in progress. So, last week, after a few hours in the University of Iowa Library’s special collections department, I made a quick foray into the stacks and… there it was. And inside…

Excerpt from Introduction of The Diaries of John Dee, Edward Fenton Ed.

See page ix

Naturally, this just points to something else, though for now I’m going to trust that the salient text is reproduced accurately by Fenton. I do wonder whether Casaubon had more to say, as the quote above doesn’t seem like it confirms Aubrey’s story exactly… But, ultimately, this was 400 years ago and I have my doubts about how completely a story like this can be confirmed or disproved, now. Still, for what it’s worth, we can probably upgrade the anecdote from “almost certainly apocryphal” to “very possibly genuine.”

And now you know something about what it was like to research Cotton’s Library.

More Cotton’s Library fans

I think the brief rainbow moment is now closed securely between the pages of history books. Back to real life, including the disheartening omnishambles known as the Greek Crisis.

But, as there is nothing particularly important for me to say about that, right now I’m going to extend the positive a bit longer, here.

The summer 2015 issue of The Quarterdeck newsletter has included Cotton’s Library in its book section; I thank them for the notice and endorsement. You can download the issue for free.

Meanwhile, on a personal level I am even more gratified that my younger brother has actually read both of my books and enjoyed them. Possessed of many good qualities including some keen perception, mah bro is not exactly a dedicated reader, all the same. Let alone a history nerd. So I’m touched that he has read through two nonfiction history works, one of them about long-dead English antiquaries and their obsessive documentary collecting. And enjoyed them.

For anyone who might be curious, I will have both books with me at Author Alley, Saturday the 11th. Stop by!

Author Alley 2015

Notice: I’m going to be at Author Alley on July 11!

This is kind of like “artist alley” at comic book conventions, for those familiar with that… i.e. it’s basically an author fair. Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights hosts. I participated in 2013, and with a second book to offer now, I am returning this year.

Should be fun! All of these lovely books and authors will be on hand, and there’s the entire Larchmere Festival going on at the same time. It’s even transit-friendly!

Please stop by.

Lakewood library presentation, 7pm Thursday

Just a quick note, for anyone out there:

Lakewood’s library has kindly invited me to speak about Cotton’s Library this Thursday. I’ll be at the Main Library (on Detroit Road) talking about my book for about half an hour, starting at 7 p.m. Then I’ll take questions, then sign copies for any buyers!

Free entry to all!

San Francisco Book Review loves Cotton’s Library

The good people at San Francisco Book Review have examined Cotton’s Library… and awarded it five stars out of five.

From the very, very generous review by Gretchen Wagner: “This is an excellent book, a wonderful, intelligent, and engrossing read. Cotton’s Library is a long-overdue tribute to a seminal, and priceless, collection.”

I’m nearly speechless. Thank you, so much, Ms. Wagner and SFBR.

Fan mail!

It’s a gray day in Lakewood. It matched my mood this morning. Realistically, it matches my mood of much of the past months.

I try to avoid just whining all the time in my semi-public comments, though. I end up doing a lot of bitching and whining on Twitter, I admit… but I try to limit that, here, and to find subjects about which I can write something positive. For my own benefit as much as anything else.

Some times it’s a struggle. But today, the most wonderful surprise arrived in the mail. An actual fan letter.

Disclosure, this is from a friend of mine. But we aren’t in contact often. The content of the letter is, almost entirely, praise of my book Cotton’s Library plus various musings that it inspired. Finally, IMO clinching “actual fan letter” status, this was an actual fucking letter delivered by USPS and typed on a typewriter.

Wow. Honestly, I find this possibly even more novel than a handwritten letter; I still encounter handwritten text relatively often, but when do I ever receive a message created with a typewriter?

I suppose I’ll just get it out of the way and address the hipster factor: 1) I’ve already gone on record as regarding these kinds of complaints as mostly snobbish and stupid, 2) my correspondent is a 40-something suburban dad and corporate cube-dweller, so if he’s a hipster then the term has officially lost even the pretense of meaning, and finally 3) I’ll just borrow from the letter, and respond to typewriter-inspired hipsterphobia with “a Bill Murrayish shrug and a fuck-em ‘hmmph.'”

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Other Cotton libraries

Whether it’s a library or a collection, “Cottonian” or simply Cotton, I think that the collection of Sir Robert Cotton deserves the first listing under any variant of the title “Cotton library.” That said, there are other notable entries on the list.

One, the Cottonian Collection now managed by the City of Plymouth, I found in my initial research and mention briefly in Cotton’s Library. This is primarily an art collection, though with more than 2,000 volumes “covering all manner of subject matter from history and archaeology, literature and the arts,” it is arguably as much a library as Robert Cotton’s larger collection, which encompassed maps, coins, stones and other curiosities as well as books and manuscripts. Also like “my” Cotton library, this was a multigenerational project; in this case its founders were not Cottons, but the last three private owners were, and thus their name attached to the collection.

So far as I know, William Cottons I-III were not any direct relation to Sir Robert. Remarkably, though, the indirect connections between their respective archives extend even to a familiar close call with combustion. “In 1983 a fire nearly destroyed the collection, though luck played its part here too, and damage was limited. One of the major effects was smoke damage resulting in a long programme of conservation, including repair to the spines and covers of the books.” I’m almost afraid to know if someone named Bentley was involved this time, too.

More recently I chanced upon references to another Cotton Library, in Ireland. Its founder Mr. Henry Cotton sounds like another worthy if presumably figurative heir to Sir Robert. In the early 19th century, according to the good Mr. O’Byrne, Henry Cotton held the post of sub-librarian at the Bodleian Library (to which Sir Robert was an early donor). Later, after joining the clergy and resettling in Ireland, Henry wrote among other works “a five-volume history of the Irish church.” Sir Robert was once commissioned to write an ecclesiastical history of England, but never made it very far; oddly enough he turned the project over to an Irish-born churchman who resettled in England.

The library left behind by Henry Cotton appears to be a fine collection, and even has a brief but enthusiastic entry on TripAdvisor. I am particularly impressed, however, by the wisdom of a couple of features mentioned by Mr. O’Byrne:

The centre of the east wall has a quartrefoil window bearing the arms of the Dukes of Devonshire (who have owned adjacent Lismore Castle since it passed into their hands in the 18th century courtesy of a Boyle heiress) and their motto ‘Cavendo Tutus’ or Safety through Caution. As if testifying to these words, the fireplace immediately beneath the window is now blocked by a display case.

Quite.

2014 Year in Review

I don’t really have a big Year in Review post in me this year. I don’t know how much that’s me slowing down, or the novelty wearing off; perhaps a little from column A and a little from column B.

For the most part, certainly in terms of the creative/work theme on which I have focused in previous years, the story of 2014 was publishing another book and otherwise just hanging on. I’m still proud of Cotton’s Library, and the fact that I was the first person in its four-century existence to write and publish a book-length history of this important collection. Still, I guess that having done this once before, something of the wow factor is missing this time. I’m not sure what it says that I can feel like researching, writing and publishing a book is just part of the old routine… but that’s kind of how it feels now.

Work in 2014 also had a “keep doing my thing and try to make ends meet” lack of magic. At the moment, most of my clients are with one firm, so a lot of the work is of a kind, in addition to being sharing-restricted anyway. They do throw challenges at me, but not too many are the type of challenge that is solved by exploring new frontiers in creative design. Lot of charts dense with numbers, lot of coordinate maps. More Microsoft PowerPoint…

Otherwise, I did a surprising amount of drawing, including this, this and a series including this. I began researching a third book. I also had some interesting minor adventures like visiting the Cartoon Library, revisiting archives from my college house-presidency for a current-resident archivist, and changing ISPs. That last one was really less an adventure than a fiasco, though, and on the whole…

Really, 2014 was kind of a downer year, to be honest. I feel a deeper pessimism about the society around me than, very possibly, ever. Contrarians can offer all the “the world is actually getting better!” items they want, and I’m aware that there is a lot of the world about which I have little more than a hypothetical awareness… but pretty much all the world with which I feel any practical affinity seems like it’s locked onto a negative trajectory for years to come. Basically, I see a world of which I just don’t want to be part, and no practical alternatives.

That just makes for a drag, every day, basically. Meanwhile my individual existence hasn’t been on any kind of offsetting highlight trip, as noted. “I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries…”

And this just seems like that’s basically that for now. Tough crap, keep on slogging. I have some plans and ideas, inevitably; I maintain some expectation of wringing some juice from life in 2015 come what may.

But it does seem like “keep doing my thing and try to make ends meet” will predominate.